Forrest Gander

2019 Pulitzer Prize

The Phenomenal Oppen

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It is in his attitude, his attitude toward words
that George Oppen finds the ground for being and so
creates poetry that is, for me, a source for a richer and more
communal life. In "World, World—" he goes so far as to say,

The self is no mystery, the mystery is
That there is something for us to stand on.

We want to be here.

The act of being, the act of being
More than oneself.

In 1927, Heidegger’s Being and Time was published in Germany.
At about the same time, Oppen began
Discrete Series,
"consciously attempting to trace," he would later note,
"the act of the world upon the consciousness."
2 As translations
became available in the 60’s, Oppen read Heidegger
extensively and recognized many convergences
in their thinking. He wrote the poem "Route" in
Of Being Numerous
after wrestling with Heidegger’s essay "Identity and Difference." And in
his notebooks, Oppen scrawled: "Heidegger’s statement that
in the mood of boredom the existence of what-is
is disclosed, is my Maude Blessingbourne in
Discrete Series
who in 'boredom' looks out the window and sees
'the world, weather-swept, with which / one shares the century.'"
Both Oppen’s and Heidegger’s descriptions of experience
are characterized by a world-directed
intentionality. And both men were drawn
to the pre-Socratic philosophers. For each of them, too,
awe is a critical word.

Heidegger wanted to overturn Platonism, to crack the frame
of constraining metaphysical oppositions. But
in his work after
Being and Time, he concentrates on fundamental
ontology, the inquiry into Being, at the expense, arguably,
of examining other kinds of perception. It might be said
that he becomes more absorbed with Being, capitalized,
than with beings in particular. But in Oppen’s oeuvre,
remains writ insistently small. It is evidenced in small words, in the small
marvels of the commonplace. Oppen is less interested in the edifice
than in the way the eye selects a single brick. If he worries
that as the clarity of seeing increases, his distance from others
also increases, he nevertheless identifies himself
as an ordinary person touched by the grasses.

Oppen takes his stand on the mineral fact of the world where,
mediated by language, he coexists with objects and others. He writes
4 Even so,
Oppen’s phenomenological sensibility shifts between
Discrete Series,
with its confederation of syntaxes and its helical mix of observations,
Of Being Numerous, with its more
meditative investigation into intersubjectivity, with its query
into how it might be possible to come to terms
with existence among others, human and inhuman,
in a place awash with preconceptions and logocentrism. In many of
the poems after
Of Being Numerous, Oppen turns his attention to a less
urban landscape and to the act of writing. Yet book by book,
Oppen’s words continue to emerge
from a stance that acknowledges perception as the product of
a participatory relationship with the world, a relationship
that closely aligns his poetics
with the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

In those sections of his notebooks published so far5,
Oppen mentions Heidegger, Maritain, Schelling, Wittgenstein, and a few
Pre-Socratic philosophers, but not Merleau-Ponty
whose book
The Phenomenology of Perception was published in English
in the same year (1962) as the English version of Heidegger’s
Being in
Time. We know, though, from his correspondence with Michael Heller,
who recommends MP’s
The Visible and the Invisible to him, that
Oppen "read quite a bit of Merleau-Ponty."
6 Certainly

Oppen, himself, focuses on connecting the visible and the invisible—
the "Bolt/ In the frame/ Of the building"
7 as he writes in Discrete Series
and in his notebooks he refers to "The seen and the unseen"
in connection with his own work. Oppen and MP equally insist
that Being-in-the-world means
bodily being. Likewise,
the experience of
silence is critical to
both men; each uses the word
talismanically. They share other key terms as well. In
The Visible
and the Invisible, MP asserts "We are not co-eval"8 and explains
that time must constitute itself, must always be seen
from the point of view of someone who
is in it. Oppen, in
Of Being Numerous, claims,
"We are not coeval/ With a locality/ But we imagine others are".

Repeatedly, in salient themes and in
strikingly comparable phrases
their critical thinking intersects. To highlight
the affinity between MP and Oppen is to open up
fruitful ways to read the poems and see more clearly,
in both poetic structures and concerns, in the angular
syntax and in the angle of inquiry, those specifically
phenomenological aspects of Oppen’s poetics.

                            *          *          *

What MP proposes, essentially, is that
the sensory-motor act of perception
constitutes consciousness. We can’t be satisfied to say
I think, therefore I am. Our bodies, in dialogue
with world from the get-go, shape our thinking. As our
perceptual habits narrow that primary, bodily relation with the world
into more rigid and predictable patterns, we see
the things of the world
as familiar objects isolated from us but subject to our control. We
find ourselves caught in a dialectical
world of subject and object where everyone and everything
is independent, disconnected. But, MP exclaims,
"The momentum of existence towards
others, towards the future, towards the world
can be restored as a river unfreezes."

Our bodies,
which evolution on earth has coaxed
into the upright, bipedal shapes
we recognize on the subway absently paging the
NY Times
with nimble fingers and opposable thumbs, these bodies,
fashioned by the world and always present in a world,
affect what and how we perceive and so influence
the modes of our consciousness. With the bodies
of staghorn flies, we would experience an utterly
different reality. It is the human body, says MP.
located in the context of the world, which provides a means
for our relation with everything else.

He goes on to point out that no thing
is utterly inert, no thing can be seen in only one way. In fact,
our seeing is never complete
since there is always more to an object
than we can possibly make out. Instead, we might say
that phenomena unfold, they draw us
into relationship, they disclose themselves to our perceptions.
Oppen, who writes, "The play begins
with the world,"
11 would certainly concur.

Both writers were reacting against
rationalism and calling for a pre-reflective engagement
with alterity. This imagination
of a
first vision MP calls the primordial. Oppen
uses the word
primitive in a remarkably
similar way, linking it to
first things.
Meditating on
the title he gives to his last book,
Oppen comments: "The Primitive fact:
the existence of the world and that the light of the world
is our humanity (our humanity is the light of the world. . .
'Primitive' i.e.: first things"
12. Like MP, Oppen
nourishes a faith in a primary perception, one that is pre-linguistic,
an urge, as he writes, "To feel oneself
at the very beginning of language."

Whether one ever can climb out of language to see the world
as it really is or map some realm of reality
that is language-independent
are questions I will not argue here. As for MP and Oppen,
the condition they describe is not unlike
the Zen Buddhist state of No-Mind, an epistemological
nakedness. In sloughing presumptions
that circumscribe our thinking, both writers suggest
we might step from the ruts of a conditioned perception
into the clarity that each prizes. "It is absolutely necessary,"
Oppen advises, "to be able to forget what one knows of 'the act';
to be able to begin each poem from the beginning."
14 Even as
MP argues that intellectualism fails to "give us any account
of the human experience of the world,"
15 that we need to make
ourselves ignorant of what we are looking for, Oppen,
on a parallel path, writes "I THINK THAT IF WE FOLLOW

For both writers,
perception is initial and
reciprocal. Oppen believes that "Poetry has to be protean; the meaning
must begin there. With the perception."
17 In his notebooks
he says that "the present, the sense of the present arrives
before the words—and independent of them."
18 He paraphrases
Jacques Maritain: "we awake in the same moment to ourselves and
to things."
19 But even as he recognizes that neither the self nor
the objects of the world can be seen apart from the world
that contains them, Oppen does not obliterate their
differences. He avows,

"a blurring of the distinction
between subjective and objective—There has been no instant in my life
when such a blurring was possible for me/ for one thing:
too much a carpenter: I know what a blue guitar is made
of".20 In The
Phenomenology of Perception, MP similarly notes how, even though
we may incorporate them, even for instance
when the steering wheel, as we drive,
seems to become an extension of our body,
objects and subjectivities are distinct, however
mutually implicative. MP speaks of a
coexistence or
coincidence of embodied subject and world. And Oppen
writes: "'one's soul': it means the image of the world, the image
of the world in yourself."

Given their experiential grounding, it is no wonder
that they both loved Cezanne’s work. In his essay on
"Cezanne’s Doubt," MP rehearses the painter’s break
with Impressionism, Cezanne’s quickening desire to recover
the density of
things, their tangible presence, from the
fuzzy dissolve of the Impressionistic style. He suggests
Cezanne was driven to recuperate black and earth tones
in order to "represent the object, to find it again behind
the atmosphere."
22 Oppen makes an analogous distinction, albeit
in different terms. He writes in his notebooks that surrealism,
its influence extending to most of modern art, "means to produce art
not out of the experience of things, but out of the
subjectivity of the artist."
23 His own way of making
poetry, Oppen remarks,
is atypical. "My work," he emphasizes, "is produced

from the experience of things."24 Oppen even quotes Cezanne
who held that "Painting from nature is not copying the object. It is
materializing one’s sensations."
25 And in his
contemplation of Thomas Hardy, Oppen
reconfigures Cezanne’s dictum. He writes: "As to Hardy’s 'realism'/
phenomenology—I carry the matter
considerably further    I would not say
that a landscape is dour—I cannot imagine myself
saying that, I would
say that we feel it so—"
26 When Oppen writes
27 or it is "not that the world is meaningless
but that all meaning means the world,"
28 he
fashions corollaries to Cezanne’s
famous assertion that "Nature
is on the inside."

To look at the poem "Psalm" from This In Which or
"A Theological Definition" from
Of Being Numerous is to recognize
a subjectivity opening out onto otherness, the draw
into relationship with things, the bouleversement of "in" and "out",
and the mingling of language (even letters) with
emotion-laden experience. Oppen remains astounded
to find that his "Self=presence," as MP has it, "is presence
to a differentiated world"
29 of beings and things. Astonished
simply "That they are there!", Oppen places his faith in
words, "the small nouns," that they might communicate
something of the feeling of being present to "what is",
the worldly THIS
"in which the wild deer/ Startle, and stare out."

In "If It All Went Up In Smoke,"31 printed below, meanings
are figured in the play of closeness and distance, in the shift of pronouns
one to us to I. Notice the contention that the poem begins
in a pre-linguistic, selved world, the emphasis on small things,
the Whitmanesque identification with grass blades and touch. Is
"savage" another word for primitive, the world
burned clear of preconception? Is the object of the verb "praise"
the distant clause "all/ / that is strange"? Is the sudden cry of "help me"
an acknowledgement of the poet’s vulnerability or is it
a solicitation of the reader to help make the poem, to
participate in its experience, to bring the poem
to its beginning in the reader?

If It All Went Up In Smoke

that smoke
would remain

the forever
savage country poem's light borrowed

light of the landscape and one's footprints praise

from distance
in the close
crowd all

that is strange the sources

the wells the poem begins

neither in word
nor meaning but the small
selves haunting

us in the stones and is less

always than that help me I am
of that people the grass

blades touch

and touch in their small

distances the poem

Oppen writes in his notebooks, "I choose to believe
in the natural consciousness, I see what the deer see, the desire NOT TO
is the desire to be alone in fear of equality/ I see
what the grass (blade) would see if it had eyes".

Instead of the traditional Western account of a consciousness
that digests the external world, Oppen honors a consciousness interwoven
with the world of objects, a consciousness that is nothing
if not a collaboration with the world.

                            *          *          *

For me, bolting from college in 1978 with a degree in geology, Oppen’s phenomenological poetics was revelatory. Engineering sciences had given me an analogy for understanding some of his syntactical strategies. I knew that unlike thermodynamic entropy, which measures loss, informational entropy measures the richness of possible messages carried by a channel. A channel that carries one single message, newspaper language one might contend, has the lowest informational entropy. But the messages channeled through Oppen’s syntax are rich and allow for alternative readings, many kinds of information. Instead of developing from subject to verb to object and resolving logically, Oppen’s sentences sanction a syntactical flexibility that promotes simultaneous, collaborative meanings. His poems, frequently enjambed and eschewing periods, are characterized by their high informational entropy.

I came to San Francisco from Virginia in 1979 and met him that summer. He was already suffering from Alzheimer's, although no one used that word, and Mary, his wife, protected him from strangers. When I visited, I came with Michael Cuddihy, the editor of the literary magazine
Ironwood. Cuddihy, in fact, had begun the magazine by soliciting work first from Oppen, who sent, according to the editor, a minor poem. Although Oppen was his hero in many ways, Cuddihy rejected the poem and Oppen wrote back to him, "Ahh, a serious editor." Then sent the new poems with which Michael Cuddihy launched his first issue.

In his poems, George Oppen wanted words to act out "truthful, lived experience."
33 His poetry is very literally a practice of perception. He even speaks of emotion "as the ability to perceive."34 The syntax of an Oppen poem rivets our attention to both word and world in an enactment of intentional consciousness, the very act of perception and thought coming into being, of language and feeling arising as experience. His poems can be intricate, the syntax polyvalent, the disclosure nonlinear and difficult to render into anything like statement. And as such, his poetry might be considered an expression of life. As the Biblical Isaiah reminds us, "it shall be a vexation only to understand." Clarity is not the same thing as simplicity.

Finally, in Oppen’s poems I feel the momentum of an existence toward others and toward the world. That is how I found him. And that is how his work finds me.